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Is there an afterlife, and if so, what will everlasting life be like—and what will you do with it? It’s a question that has haunted mankind from the very beginning—or has it? Did the God who created everything we see put us on earth for this one lifetime, or did He impart knowledge of mankind’s true destiny beyond death, somewhere in the pages of your Bible?
A recent poll by gaming firm Bowlero found that the average American is bored for 131 days each year. A study commissioned by insurance company Cigna found that 61 percent of Americans report feeling lonely. Can you imagine spending all of eternity feeling the way you feel in your present life?
Clearly, if there is an afterlife, it had better be something much more than this present life. But how can we know? How can we sort through the many opinions and understand why we should want to live forever?
The idea of “becoming at one with the cosmic essence” at death has been around for millennia. In ancient times, some believed that the souls of their kings, at death, entered the heavenly bodies such as the planets, moon, and sun. “Plutarch states that the Egyptian priests expressly taught ‘that Cronus, Osiris, Horus, and all their other principal deities were once mere men, but that after they died their souls migrated into some one or other of the heavenly bodies, and became the animating spirits of their new celestial mansions’” (John Garnier, The Worship of the Dead, p. 14). Increasing numbers of Americans are adopting a version of this doctrine; a Pew Research poll found that 33 percent of those surveyed believe in some form of reincarnation (“‘New Age’ beliefs common among both religious and nonreligious Americans,” October 1, 2018).
The Bible does describe resurrected Christians gaining a greater oneness with God. Jesus Christ prayed for His disciples: “And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:22–23). However, people who become spirit beings will also have distinct spiritual bodies and personalities; they will not just be part of a dumb, blind cosmic force. The Apostle Paul explained what will happen to a person’s body buried in a grave in the ground: “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44).
Eternal life is not just about changing to another energy state—it is about having a real, obedient relationship with a real, personal God (John 17:3). But what will the saints be doing for all eternity?
Is the ultimate goal of eternity our achieving spiritual bliss through looking into the face of God or floating on clouds forever? In 1336, Pope Benedict XII described the Roman Catholic idea of the afterlife: “And after such intuitive and face-to-face vision and enjoyment has or will have begun for these souls, the same vision and enjoyment has continued and will continue without any interruption and without end until the last Judgment and from then on forever” (“Benedictus Deus: On the Beatific Vision of God,” The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church).
Looking into the face of God will be an awesome and thrilling experience, as the Apostle John explained: “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). To see God the Father on His throne, and to see Jesus Christ—whose face shines like the sun—will be exhilarating. But will the saints simply gaze at them unendingly?
Certainly, the resurrection of the saints must have a greater purpose than just staring at God or lounging around on clouds. But what is that purpose?
Many equate happiness with sensual pleasure—good food, beautiful sights, and sexual fulfillment. The ancient Irish believed that the good traveled at death to a “land of eternal youth, where the sun was never hidden behind the clouds, and where all the Irish women were beautiful” (Gregg Stebben, Everything You Need to Know About Religion, p. 16). The Qur’an pictures Muslims spending eternal life “on thrones woven with gold and precious stones, reclining thereon, face to face. They will be served by immortal boys, with cups, and jugs, and a glass from the flowing wine, wherefrom they will get neither any aching of the head, nor any intoxication. And fruit; that they may choose. And the flesh of fowls that they desire. And (there will be) Houris (fair females) with wide, lovely eyes (as wives for the pious), like unto preserved pearls. A reward for what they used to do” (Surah 56:15–24, NobleQuran.com).
Sensual happiness in the afterlife—especially regarding sex—has been a widely embraced idea. Some years ago, Barnard College professor of religion Alan F. Segal told AARP Magazine, “Americans see life after death as a very dynamic thing. You don’t really hear about angels and wings, sitting on clouds playing melodies…. They talk about humor in the afterlife, continuing education, unifying families—like a retirement with no financial needs…. A lot believe there will be sex in the afterlife, that it’ll be more pleasurable” (“Life after Death,” September–October 2007).
Christ did say that the primary job of resurrected saints would be terrestrial, not celestial, and that it would be exciting and fulfilling. In the parable of the talents, He referred to the Kingdom as “the joy of your lord” (Matthew 25:21). In Matthew 5:5, He taught, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”—not heaven. Revelation 21 describes a “new earth,” with the “holy city” coming down to earth to be the habitation of God forever. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples in human form, and even enjoyed a meal of fish and honey with them (Luke 24:42).
The physical creation will be a beautiful and enjoyable dwelling place for the resurrected saints to dwell in with God. Yet satisfying the senses will not be the ultimate goal of resurrected Christians living on earth. Christ explained, for example, that sexuality will not be a part of the resurrected saints’ experience; that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).
Living in the Kingdom of God—under God’s laws, through His Spirit—will be a joyful experience, but happiness in itself will not be the ultimate goal and purpose for eternal life.
To understand our spiritual destiny, we must recall the commission God gave when human beings were first placed on the earth. God gave Adam and Eve “dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26). The human family was given responsibility to rule over God’s creation. In turn, Adam was to dress it and cultivate it. He and his descendants were to help in God’s creative work of enhancing and beautifying the earth.
Adam failed the test of obedience, and Satan the devil was able to ensnare and entrap all of humanity (Revelation 12:9). But through the work of the Messiah—Jesus’ life, sacrifice, resurrection, and second coming—the devil will ultimately be overthrown (Revelation 20:2, 10). At Christ’s second coming, the earth will be returned to an Eden-like state (Isaiah 51:3).
But whom will God use to restore the world? The resurrected saints. Scripture clearly describes their role: “[You] have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:10). God also instructs His saints, “But hold fast what you have till I come. And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations” (Revelation 2:25–26).
In the parable of the minas, Christ explained the leadership role the resurrected saints will be given as a reward for their faithful service: “Then came the first, saying, ‘Master, your mina has earned ten minas.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities’” (Luke 19:16–17). The saints’ role will be to rule over the earth with Christ (Revelation 3:12, 21).
But what will happen after the general resurrection, after the Millennium—the prophesied thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ on the earth—has ended (Revelation 20:4, 12)? What will the saints do after obedient and converted human beings have been glorified and the incorrigible have been reduced to ashes in a lake of fire (Malachi 4:3)?
God inspired the Apostle Paul to write about our ultimate destiny: “For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels. But one testified in a certain place, saying: ‘What is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You take care of him? You have made him a little lower than the angels; You have crowned him with glory and honor, and set him over the works of Your hands’” (Hebrews 2:5–7). The resurrected saints will not only help God rule over the earth; they will also “judge”—govern or manage—the angels (1 Corinthians 6:2–3).
And there is more. Paul wrote further, “You have put all things in subjection under his feet” (Hebrews 2:8). What did Paul mean by “all things”? The Greek used here, ta panta, is all-inclusive, meaning “all, any, every, the whole” (BibleHub.com). All things will be put under the dominion of the resurrected saints, working through God’s Kingdom.
In other words, even though all things—the whole universe—are not currently under humanity’s dominion, they will be (Hebrews 2:8). Can we grasp that? Just as God originally gave human beings dominion and rulership over the earth, His ultimate goal is for us to rule over the entire universe. In the same way that we were meant to work on and beautify the earth, God has also called us to assist Him in refashioning and “planting” the desolate planets throughout the vast universe (Isaiah 51:16).
When God created man and woman, He created them “in His own image” (Genesis 1:27). While the animals were made after the various animal kinds, human beings were made after the God kind. All members of the human family, created by God, are rightly called His children. But through His working within us through the indwelling of His Spirit, human beings can become part of God’s spiritual family. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
When does this “second birth” occur? At the resurrection. Jesus Christ became the “firstborn” from the dead at His resurrection (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5; Romans 8:29). His being the “first” implies that others will follow. Paul explained that Christ is “declared to be the Son of God with power… by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).
God wants to share His “family business”—rulership over the entire universe—with His children. Human beings’ purpose is to be born into the Family of God as the “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).
Eternal life—the greatest gift God could bestow on His children—will bring with it a great and awesome purpose. It is not merely for indefinite human existence. It is not for joining the “world soul.” It is not to pursue sensual pleasure or even to achieve “heavenly bliss.” As members of the divine Family of God, obedient, faithful, resurrected saints will share in the work and mission of the Family—governing and beautifying the entire universe in peace and righteousness—forever.
Thank God for our awesome destiny, and may God speed the day when His plan for each of us is complete.